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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Frank Stella. k43 (ABS Black), 2012. Mixed media. 82 x 68 x 43 inches. (c)2012 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Freedman Art.
I have already expounded at some length for artcritical.com on “Frank Stella: New Work” at Freedman Art (through September 27). Here I shall summarize what I said there, and then go on to a bit of reminiscence. The bottom line here is that I liked the best work in this show more than any new work by this artist than I’ve seen in some time.

This is not to say that Stella hasn’t exhibited equally good (or even better) work in the recent (or even fairly remote) past, but for some decades now, I have had very mixed feelings about his work. This means that I have only checked in on his many shows now and then, and may well have missed more than few major developments.


What I like about this current show is its relative placidity and relative elegance. Too often in the past, Stella’s work has been too weird for me, with too many overdone spikes, twists & whirls.

I am not impressed that from a sales point of view, he has been phenomenally successful and that his work has sold for very high prices, because I know that prices are merely a reflection of supply & demand, and that those artists most in demand by hoi polloi not necessarily the best, as I see it.

Nor am I impressed with the fact that from a technological standpoint, Stella’s work is highly sophisticated, because in my opinion, technology should be the servant of esthetics, not its master. What I like about the current show, then, is that in it he has gotten these priorities straight.

Although Freedman Art passes out a helpful page explaining Stella’s technology, I am going to bypass passing it all along to you. I’ll also forego describing most of what I liked about individual pieces, all of which are named for different musical compositions by Domenico Scarlatti, an 18th century composer who appears to be one of Stella’s current culture heroes, and who has inspired work by him for at least one previous show.


The four pieces which stand out for me are a) “k.161b,” a small, predominantly green free-standing number; b) “k.37 (ABS Blue),” a larger wall piece which, as the name suggests, has a good deal of blue on it, along with other colors; c) “k.359,” a all-grey, very big (10-foot high) monster, half-way between wall piece and freestanding sculpture, and d) in the back gallery, where it may be too easily overlooked, “k.43 (ABS Black).”

This last is also a wall piece, and more than ordinarily serene (for Stella). At its center is a hub of flat, broad, curved shapes colored with restrained bands of black, white, pale blue and pink. Around this hub circle three framing elements of more brightly-colored tubing – a curved white one at the front & lower left, a more rectilinear electric blue one in back, piercing the hub in its upper middle, and a T-shaped green one, which sits high atop the hub, and (to me at least) resembles a strange pair of antlers. It may look haphazard to some, but I wouldn’t be able to describe it if it weren’t also so bloody well organized.


Although I certainly respect Stella as an artist, I am afraid that on a personal level, he has never struck me as "Mr. Warmth," though I'm perfectly prepared to admit this may be as much my own fault as his. The first time we met was in the fall of 1967, when I was still at Time, and for reasons that I've forgotten, decided to schedule a page of color photography on his "Protractor" series, which was going to make its premier appearance at Leo Castelli that same fall. (In those days, most of the mainstream media used color photography, if at all, only very sparingly. Thus a page full of paintings in color in Time really stood out amidst what was mostly otherwise a sea of black & white.)

I went to Stella's studio to meet him and select the paintings to be photographed by us, but, although I knew he was supposed to be a very good abstract artist, I still had problems with abstraction as a mode of art--or, to be more accurate, I had developed problems with abstraction as a result of having worked for Time for eleven years.

When I'd come to Time, I'd been totally open-minded about abstraction, as one of many outgrowths of having had a progressive upbringing. However, while at Time, I'd come to believe that the greatest art must of necessity be universal. After all, magazines based their success on how big their circulations were, and the more readers Time had, the better it must be.


While writing the art section, I had been encouraged to emphasize the very large number of museum-goers, for example, that an exhibition by Andrew Wyeth had attracted. We'd also done a cover story on Wyeth (written by a predecessor of mine). It had been a great success with Time's readers, so I thought that Wyeth must be the greatest artist we had, in the sense that he could claim to be well-nigh universal.

On the other hand, I had persuaded our managing editor (against his better judgment) to do a cover story on Tony Smith, an abstract sculptor, about a month before I interviewed Stella. While in the decades since, I've learned that this cover was a hit in the Manhattan art world, all I knew in '67 was that it had bombed with most of Time's readers -- only attracting a handful of letters to the editor, and virtually all of them on the level of "my kid could do it." Abstraction, I'd concluded, was clearly a mode of art that couldn't claim to be universal.

I therefore recall taxing Stella with the limitations of abstraction. I may not have been particularly tactful about this, but all I remember was his response, which was rude in the extreme, leading me to write -- in the story on him -- an acid passage to the effect that "His new works demonstrate how far removed trend-setting art has become from any concern with society, reality, human interest or popular taste...."

However, as edited, this populism verging on philistinism was buried in the body of the story, and its "kicker " at the end, which is what would have left the more lasting impression upon most readers, was a much nicer quote from him. (It must have been extracted by the researcher who interviewed him for the story itself, and who knew much more about art than I did at that point.)

In responding to viewers who might not like abstraction, Stella was reported to say, "My eyes and my emotions tell me something different. They tell me it's very beautiful, complicated, moving, disturbing and challenging. There are forces at work to think about here."


That was the last time I thought about Stella for a couple of years, th0ugh within eight months of our meeting, I had radically revised my thinking on abstraction -- thanks not to him, but to an argument I'd had with William Rubin over a most congenial lunch at a classy French restaurant called l'Aiglon.

Rubin had ruthlessly pointed out how few people could really appreciate art at all -- using as his guinea pigs the undergraduate students he'd had at Hunter and Sarah Lawrence, only 6 percent of whom, according to him, could really respond to his teaching.

He also asked me how many ordinary people would be able to distinguish between a genuine Rembrandt and a painting by one of Rembrandt's followers--an argument I found particularly telling because we'd only recently published a story about the large number of "Rembrandts" being re-attibuted to lesser artists.

Finally, in despair I cried out, "But what's abstraction about?" And Rubin replied, with equal conviction, "What all great art's about -- feeling!" That simple injunction was enough to turn me around, if only because it gave me permission to skip wondering about the lack of apparent subject matter in abstract art. From that moment forth, I could begin to respond to it on a gut level--even to abstract artists, most notably Pollock, who had hitherto escaped me.

At the end of that lunch, Rubin asked what I was planning to do now, since he'd disabused me of my "populist notions." The answer was a while in coming, but within the next 18 months I'd left Time, and eventually dedicated myself to writing about art that I considered the greatest, even if it couldn't claim to be "universal," at any rate in the same sense that Wyeth was. Scratch the populist, find an elitist.


Before I left Time, however, somebody asked me, "Have you any idea what's happened to Stella's prices since you did that story on him?" I didn't, nor did I trouble to find out, but many years later, the New Yorker did a Profile on Stella, in which it reported that the Protractor show was the first Stella exhibition that really sold well, and yes, his prices had escalated considerably.

Now, I wouldn't want to say that Time alone was responsible. I'm sure the fact that these paintings were more colorful and less severe also prompted more buyers to jump in, but the fact that Time's circulation was in the millions, while even the largest of the art magazines had circulations only in the tens of thousands, must have had something to do with it.

Prices, as I've already said, are based upon supply and demand, and letting millions of readers in on the good news about Frank Stella must have been like elevating whispered praise into a shout, audible far & wide. The supply of the art in question remained static, while the demand was spread out among millions more viewers.

But was Stella grateful? Apparently not. The second time I had the pleasure of meeting him was two or three years ago, when I was in Marlborough's Chelsea outlet & Stella was also there with a mutual friend, Kenworth Moffett. Moffett re-introduced us, and I reminded Stella about the story we'd done on him in Time.

However, all he would say was that this story must have been what got him into some State Department show. God forbid he should be willing to say that that Time, which had been hawkish on Vietnam, could have done anything for his bottom line. I daresay that as far as he was concerned, his astounding incease in sales was all due to the brilliance of his own painting. Not Mr. Warmth.


In the years since I left Time, I've become more & more aware of how widespread an audience I was reaching through its bully pulpit. Even while I was still there, though, I visited a Chicago collector who pointed with pride to a painting that he'd bought with a phone call to a dealer after seeing it reproduced in our magazine.

In the years since, I've also heard from a New York art critic who was raised (if memory serves correctly) in Minnesota or Wisconsoin, and who told me how she, as a teenager, used to rush out every week and buy both Time and Newsweek, to get all the latest hot news from New York about contemporary art.

Then there's the painter who came across the art of Helen Frankenthaler in the major article I wrote on that subject while she, still a teenager, was doing laundry in a laundry room at a ski resort in Colorado (again, if memory serves correctly).

On the other hand, none of these three people were the sort to write letters to Time about its art coverage, and the outraged people who did, I've come to believe, were much more representative of the average Time reader.


Without boring you with all the reasons why, I'll just say that by the early 70s, both newsmagazines were covering the art scene much more sporadically, and that's still true today -- in fact, truer than ever, since newsmagazines in general are an endangered species, their incomes decimated by the ravages of the World Wide Web.

My experience with Time, however, has been valuable in many ways, and not least with allowing me to be aware that an overwhelming majority of Americans out there care squat about art, especially modern or contemporary painting & sculpture.

To them, contemporary art is mostly a pretty picture of flowers or mountains that you hang in your house (and is more likely these days to be a photograph than a painting, unless it's a Thomas Kinkade or a Leroy Neiman).

Art is also something you stare vacantly at in a museum when you are visting New York or Washington or some other big city as a tourist, a way of killing time before taking in a musical in the evening, or eating dinner at a big-name restaurant--but nothing you might otherwise want to concern yourself with.


I explain this by saying that people normally like doing what they're good at, and less interested in doing anything that leaves them feeling inadequate or incompetent, and relatively few people have the aptitudes -- let alone the experience -- to really enjoy modern painting & sculpture, especially if it's abstract.

It's like every other aptitude: not everybody can pitch for the Yankees, perform brain surgery, or sing at La Scala.

Experience can help, too, in appreciating good modernist abstraction, but it has to have been the right kind of experience-- and that is very difficult to acquire in the art scene as it currently exists.

There are, of course, two ways of dealing with this situation. One is the Duchampian: you expand the definition of art so that it will include experiences that even peope with a glass eye can relate to -- from videos (little movies, so often in Chelsea galleries) to building sand castles at the beach (a recent project organized in Queens by an outfit called Creative Time, which rejoices in what it likes to call "site-specific" art).

The other way of dealing with it is to focus on the painting & sculpture and rejoice in your own capacity to appreciate it. Even if this does make you a minority instead of a majority, you will be able to get a kick out of experiences that most people can't get. And I mean a real kick, when the art is good enough, a sensation unlike any other.

There's no shame attached to either position, the way I see it, but I don't have time to run down every last little video or get out to the beach to build sand castles (though I used to enjoy making "drip castles" when I was about ten). I always have time for Cezanne, though, and hope I always will.


Incidentally, I’m happy to report that, while I was at Freedman Art, looking at the Stella, who should come in but William O’Reilly (formerly of Salander-O’Reilly). In the course of the chat we had, he told me that he is now associated with this gallery on a project basis. Welcome back, Bill, to the public galleries!
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